Utah Board of Education loses another member — fourth one in less than a year

Another member of the Utah Board of Education has announced that she will leave her seat — making her the fourth to resign in less than a year.

Linda Hansen, who was elected to the board in 2014, spoke at the beginning of Thursday’s monthly meeting and said she would be stepping down as she moves to a new home outside of her district. With her departure, the board will also lose one of its strong advocates for students with disabilities.

“One of the reasons I ran is because I never heard anybody talk about how what the board was doing was going to affect special needs kids,” she said, trying not to cry. “I’ve begged and I’ve pleaded and I’ve shed a lot of tears at this table for them. So please do not forget them.”

Hansen represented the west side of Salt Lake County, including West Valley City and Magna, as well as school districts in Tooele and Juab counties. She and her husband, Ben, are moving to Pleasant View to retire.

“It’s hard to step away,” Hansen told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday.

Her resignation comes after the two most conservative and outspoken members on the board —Alisa Ellis and Lisa Cummins — stepped down this summer. It also follows the departure of Kathleen Riebe, who had to leave midterm at the start of the year after winning a seat in the state Senate.

It’s a surprising amount of turnover on the 15-member board that oversees the state’s public schools. And it means that now four of its members will be appointed by the governor — who gets to choose the replacement — rather than elected, as the board is set up to be.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s appointments have already shifted the gender make-up of the school board as he has chosen men — Shawn Newell, Mark Marsh and Michael Haynes — to replace all three of the women who have stepped down before Hansen. As a Republican, the governor’s picks also tend to be more conservative.

Board positions have four-year terms, and Hansen’s was set to end in 2022. Her replacement, though, will fill the spot with the term ending with the next election in 2020, the first time board members will be able to run under a political party.

Hansen won reelection in November 2018 with nearly 74% of the vote — higher than any other incumbent on the board facing a challenger. She was first elected to represent District 3 in 2014, unseating member Michael Jensen 59 percent to 41 percent.

She has also served on the PTA Board of Directors and the Utah Developmental Disabilities Council.

Hansen became passionate about advocating for students with disabilities because her two youngest sons have autism. And she helped draft legislation that provided more job training for those kids.

“Only 30% of people with disabilities who want jobs actually get jobs,” she said. “We put in place some rules so parents and teachers knew that ultimately their kids with disabilities are happier and healthier if they have jobs.”

She said that work was the most valuable to her during her time on the board.

Hansen also pushed for three years to get more counselors in elementary schools, advocated for annual school assessments to be more than just a single letter grade and worked to create a student advisory council to inform the state school board. She was a steadying voice when the board was torn over new science standards.

When a debate over evolution became heated, she declared: “We’re not putting together a religion class. We’re not putting together a history class. We need to just stick to science.”

Board chairman Mark Huntsman said Hansen would be “greatly missed” and promised to keep students with disabilities in mind when drafting policies.

“That advocacy will continue on with the decisions that we make,” he said. “You’ve got that burned into my brain.”

Several others — including superintendents and state representatives — also posted on Twitter, wishing Hansen well and thanking her for speaking up. Utah PTA President Laney Benedict said she’d been “an excellent advocate for all students.” Tami Pyfer, education adviser to the governor, wrote: “It’s a sad day for all of us! You’ve done an amazing job!”

Pyfer has previously told The Tribune that the governor’s priority in choosing replacements for the board is finding someone who is “committed to improving public education for all Utah students.”